The Lost Battalion
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
On December 24, 1918, Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey of
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was presented in the presence of 20,000
people on Boston Common by Major General Edwards with the congressional
Medal of Honor, the highest tribute of valor the United States awards.
General Edwards presented the medal with these words: Your heroic act
thrilled the entire American Expeditionary Force. It was a piece of
stout-hearted work that reflected credit upon the part of yourself and
of the men who were serving under you. It sustained the best
traditions of American arms and valor. It is a great pleasure to have
the presentation assigned to me; I regard it as a sacred duty.
Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey smiled, and straightening up to his full
stature of six feet and four inches, simply said, I thank you,
The medal was given to reward his courage and determination when with
his lost battalion he was surrounded by the Germans in the Argonne
On the fourth day of suffering in the cold and rain without food or
blankets, when their ammunition was almost gone, an American who had
been taken prisoner by the Germans was sent to Major Whittlesey--his
promotion to Lieutenant Colonel came later--with a written message
saying, Americans, you are surrounded on all sides. Surrender in the
name of humanity. You will be well treated.
[Illustration: Major General Clarence R. Edwards, former commander of
the Twenty-sixth Division, pinning the congressional Medal of Honor on
the breast of Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey.]
Major Whittlesey's exclamation when he had read the message was very
brief and very forceful. It made the Germans understand without
further parley that the Americans would never surrender. Major
Whittlesey's men cheered his reply. Not one of them, cold, hungry, and
almost exhausted, thought for a moment of surrendering.
Several days before on the morning of September 26, they had entered
the Argonne forest, as a part of the line of American attack. At
five-thirty in the morning, they had gone over the top in a very
heavy fog and behind their creeping barrage toward the German trenches.
They had to force their passage through trees, shrubs, vines, and
undergrowth grown all together so that it was almost impossible to
advance and yet keep in touch with one another as they were ordered to
They reached the first German trenches which were named the Ludwig.
The Huns named their trenches so as to identify them readily in orders
and upon the maps. These trenches were empty and they went on to a row
of fancy concrete and iron dugouts, called by the Germans Karlsruhe,
where they made their headquarters for the night.
The next day they met stubborn resistance from artillery and nests of
machine guns, but they were able to make progress. In the first mile
they passed over twelve abandoned trench systems.
As they went forward they left men behind at regular intervals to keep
them in touch with the regimental headquarters. Along this line of
men, stationed near enough together to communicate easily with each
other, orders, ammunition, and rations could be passed.
The Germans knew their plan and as the battalion in the next days
gradually got ahead of the main American line and out of touch with it
on the flanks, the Huns pushed through, killed part of the men on the
line of communication, and surrounded it, placing machine-gun nests in
When Major Whittlesey discovered their predicament, he directed his
adjutant, Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh, with two men to make an attempt to
get back to regimental headquarters and inform the colonel of the
situation. Lieutenant McKeogh has told the story of his success. It
is intensely exciting and makes one shiver at the horror of men, who
have no personal enmity but might be friends, killing one another, and
also makes one thrill with pride and admiration for the courage that
dares even to death--not the quick death of the glorious charge, but
the slow death of thirst, exhaustion, and fatigue. It shows us the
worst and the best of war, and that the worst is too great a price to
pay for the best. Lieutenant McKeogh writes in an article in
I took Munson and Herschowitz, and on hands and knees, with drawn
revolvers, we began a detour of the nests. I was keeping my direction
by compass every foot of the way. We had been going a scant ten
minutes when shots from a light Maxim and rifles broke out in front. I
thought we had been spotted, but after a wait, when we started again,
we crawled within a few feet of the real target, now lifeless; he was
in khaki and apparently he had strayed from his outfit. During our
wait we saw a boche passing through the trees. From the crackling of
the brush there seemed to be others. With my lips I made the words
Don't fire to my runners, and then covered him, in case he saw us.
He went by. Realizing that we might have something of a time of it
getting through, I motioned the runners to my side, read the messages
to them in whispers and had them repeat. Then scooping out a little
hole in the sodden leaves under my chin, I buried the messages, with
several others from my map case, in fine pieces. Next I impressed upon
them that our mission was not to fight unless forced to it, but to get
back to the regiment, all of us, if possible; one, certainly.
Consequently we would separate when it became necessary.
Half an hour's traveling brought us to a broad clearing, cleaving the
forest as far as I could see, on a true north-south line. Our
direction was south, and the trail down the center of the clearing
meant real progress, although I knew trails to be dangerous. We were
not long upon it, when suddenly, out of a side trail, two German
officers appeared, fifty yards ahead.
The one in advance shouted something with Kamerad in it. But at the
same time he was leveling his pistol at me, and I needed no interpreter.
We darted off the trail behind a bush at its edge. The boches fired
into the bush as they came. We stretched out and waited. In front of
me a bough ran low and parallel to the ground; upon it I rested my
pistol, directing it upon the trail through the thin leaves underneath.
Presently Herr Offizier came creeping along, bent to the waist and
peering through the bush. We looked squarely into each other's eyes as
we fired, less than ten feet separating us. Being settled and ready
for him, my gun had about a second the better of his. I aimed at his
mouth, allowing for the rise of the bullet from the kick. As he
fired I actually felt the concussion against my face, we were so close;
then a hot, sharp pain in my right forearm, as if some one had suddenly
pushed a white-hot knife blade along under the elbow when I hadn't been
Munson and Herschowitz fired too, and there seemed to be shots from the
second boche. My own particular duelist dropped back limp after my
first shot, although I got off four in quick succession.
Now we made for the thick of the woods. My resolution was to stick to
them though they should be thick as fish glue. Under good cover Munson
dressed my wound. My fingers had begun stiffening up a bit, and I
worked them to keep the trigger finger in good trim, thinking at the
time what a ludicrous shot I'd be with the left hand. A thought for
soldiers in training: Are you ambidextrous? I've never fired a shot
with the left.
The wound itself was a puzzler. Almost at once the arm swelled until
it seemed that a duck egg had been inserted under the flesh. But,
feeling around it, there was no hard substance beneath. The sleeve
showed two holes within three inches of each other where the cartridge
had gone in and out. What probably happened was that my shot had
diverted his aim and his bullet had passed under my crooked elbow and
armpit, merely searing the forearm in a caressing sort of way. The
blood was negligible. Altogether, it was a cushy blighty, as the
Tommy puts it. We reloaded our revolvers to wait for nightfall. There
was a bit of stale bread in the bottom of my gas mask, forgotten until
now. I split it into three parts, about two mouthfuls for each, and
dug out some half-soaked cigarettes.
We'll have a smoke, Jack (military rank is forgotten sometimes), if
it's the last, I said, and he agreed with a wan sort of smile.
Herschowitz whispered that he didn't smoke, and dropped asleep as the
words left his mouth.
None of us had water. And we were very thirsty. The boys had white,
sticky saliva in the corners of their mouths, and, from the feel of
mine, I knew that I had too.
To the inevitable monody of machine guns, we dozed until dusk came.
Then with compass and revolver, one in each hand, I started again upon
the eternal crawl. My arm had grown in circumference until the sleeve
was tight upon it. Crawling added nothing to its comfort, for to do
the crawfish stroke the elbows are pushed out ahead and upon them as
anchors the rest of the body is then drawn up. As yet it was not
necessary to go so carefully. But when, after hours, we came to a
clearing as grateful as I was for the chance of unhampered movement, I
dropped to hands and knees. Ten minutes of thus shinning passed
without event. Then suddenly a boche voice called out, a little to our
front: Bist du Deutsch? That much German I understood. We
flattened. As it happened, we were at the foot of a tree at the base
of which grew brush. We lay motionless. Again the voice, with its
demand in intonation.
Then the bolt of a rifle clicked clearly and the owner of the voice
fired. The flash was clear against the night. From the right and left
of the flash, and close to it, came other flashes. The bullets whined
harmlessly above us.
Was this a small, mobile party? If so, they would be slinking about.
But during half an hour of their intermittent firing the position of
the flashes never changed. That looked like funk holes! And if it was
a case of funk holes, by all the nasty little elves of tough luck, we
had stumbled right into a German position!
By watching the direction of the flashes I tried to determine their
front. Cupping my hand over the radio-lighted dial of my compass, I
studied it in connection with their bursts of fire. They seemed to be
firing north. But north was our own battalion front, and theirs,
according to the military logic of things, south, unless--unless they
had swung in from our flank behind us and had dug in facing our rear!
No amount of juggling of the compass could satisfactorily account for
the position of those bodies. So I settled down to waiting tactics.
Clearly, it's wise to let your enemy think you have moved off while he
is most on the alert for your movement. After that he relaxes
vigilance, and you stand a better chance of getting away without
foreign substances under the skin.
I whispered--oh, very softly--that we would stay here for some time.
Possibly an hour. And then I fell asleep!
Munson woke me by gently pounding on my thigh. I don't remember the
time. Must have been around midnight. The funk holes were quiet now,
and we wormed away in a new direction without drawing fire. I
recollect seeing the shiny hobnails and the horseshoe of steel on the
runners' boots as I crawled back past them to take the lead. I
wondered at what distance they were visible.
Occasionally my helmet would come afoul of a vine or small branch; and
then like cathedral bells to my overstrained ears the edge of the
helmet would make a little ringing sound. I berated myself for ever
having removed its burlap camouflage, though it gathered all the sand
in the world to deposit in my hair.
Once I heard Munson struggling to restrain a cough. We froze to the
ground while he sputtered as softly as he could. And I was to know
later what mental as well as physical torture the sensation is. For
hours it seemed, painstakingly, inch by inch, we wormed our way out of
those funk holes. Out, as I thought. But it was deeper into them
that we went!
I was congratulating myself on leaving the hotbed, as I headed for a
bush, when, just at the fringe of it, and almost out of its very
leaves, came another demand in German.
This was a moment for quick action. It was time for the message to go
back by three individuals on different routes. I heard the safety lock
of a rifle snapped back. He would fire the next minute. Springing up,
I shouted: Separate! to the boys, and ran as fast as I could,
helter-skelter down the side of a gradual slope. I was making no
effort at stooping now. Speed was my salvation, if anything was.
Rifles barked all around. For a moment or two I heard the runners
crashing through the brush. Several shots hummed past me, but I was
too preoccupied to notice them much. I knew I'd have to get cover
soon--before they saw and dropped me. Just ahead, in dark outline, I
spotted what seemed to be a providential bit of cover. I made for it
full tilt, the sloping ground quickening my pace.
I hurled myself at it, legs first and spread apart, so as to land in a
sitting position. It was so that I did land--right astride the
shoulders of a boche. I had selected a German funk hole for cover!
As I landed, a second boche who like the first had been squatted down
rose to his feet, slowly, it seemed, alongside me. We were both bereft
of speech from the surprise; the fellow under me was incapable of
locomotion as well, for while I felt him squirm a bit he stayed put.
My mind was racing like an overfed gas engine.
What, I thought, is the convention when one tumbles in upon a pair
of Fritzes without the formality of being announced?
I knew I had to gain time until the muscular paralysis from the
surprise had passed. Subconsciously I must have been thinking that if
only I could speak to him in his native tongue he might believe for the
moment that I was one of his own.
I cudgeled my brain for a German expression. Then I remembered a
masseuse, a very German woman, who has called at my home for years to
dress my sister's hair. What was it she used to say so much? What was
it? Ah, I knew!
Was ist los? I said triumphantly to my vis-a-vis as he rose to his
Amusingly enough, I didn't actually know at the time that it meant
What's the matter? I had an idea it was a liberal translation of
Who's looney now? And that seemed pat enough for the occasion.
Was ist los? Fritz repeated with a strong, rising inflection on the
los. And at that he drew his overcoat, which apparently had been
thrown across his shoulders, high above his head and down over it, as
if he were cold. I can see the silhouette of that coat against the
stars now. Of course I could have been in the hole no longer than
fifteen seconds, but it seemed hours, and every move is deep limned
upon my memory.
As he lowered the coat, his hands holding the collar at his cheeks, my
wits became somewhat normal again. You idiot! I said to myself.
You've got a revolver in your right hand.
Sharply I brought the muzzle against his left breast and fired twice.
Then, crooking my elbow, I reached down, sunk the muzzle into the back
of the man under me, and again fired twice. I recall spreading my legs
for fear of injuring myself. His body crumpled under me.
The first one had fallen backward, supported by the side of the funk
hole. His hands seemed to be reaching blindly for something in his
belt now. Both their rifles lay extended over the little parapet. He
might be trying to get at his trench knife. So I fired again, and
without waiting to see the effect of the shot, sprang up and ran wildly
down the slope.
My breath was coming in gasps. I thought it was all up, for the whole
camp--a bivouac of a company it surely was--went into an uproar of
shouts and shots and flashes.
Amerikaner! I heard several times.
I don't know how far I ran. Not far. For I was expecting to be hit at
any moment. Again I found a low-growing bush. And again
half-anticipating finding myself with the enemy, I sprawled in under
it. My breath was burning my throat. I was horribly thirsty. And my
heart was pounding like a pile driver--and every bit as loud.
Little by little I squirmed in under the branches. Voices came from
half a dozen directions. Some were drawing toward me. About fifteen
yards to my right front, shots came steadily from what I knew to be
another funk hole. I thought of the shiny hobnails on the runners'
boots, and drew my legs up closer. My watch gleamed like a group of
flares, and I twisted its face to the under side of my wrist.
The voices were very close now. It seemed to be a little party,
beating the bushes for me. I saw one fellow's head and shoulders
against the sky line. My first thought was of my gun. I knew there
was but a single cartridge left. Softly I opened the clips on my
cartridge pouch and reloaded.
I didn't like lying face down. It was too inviting to a shot in the
back. I wanted to roll over and be prepared when they came upon me, to
sit up into some sort of firing position. But my white face (and I'll
wager it was unwontedly white!) might show up in the dark. So I clawed
my fingers into the ground in the hope that I could apply some
camouflage in the form of mud. But mud is perverse; it lies yards deep
when you don't want it, and is miles away when you do. The ground was
wet enough from the rains--so was I, for that matter!--but with spongy,
dead leaves. I tried smearing some over the backs of my hands, but
when I extended one to get the effect it was as lily-white as milady's;
whereat I hastily tucked it back under my gas mask, worn at the alert
upon my chest.
The searchers, meantime, were snaking around among the bushes. Their
conversation was as audible as it was meaningless to me--now to my
left, next close up, then withdrawing to my right.
All this time the li'l .45 was ready if they got so near that
discovery would be inevitable. I hadn't given up hope by any means,
but I did let myself picture several boches taking my maps and message
books (one of them full of carbon copies) into some dugout. Such odd
little thoughts as how long it would take them to find a boche who
could read English occurred to me. And from that I was whisked back to
a Forty-second Street barber whose English was excellent and who had
told me of his service in the German army. Many such reservists must
have returned to the Fatherland. I wondered, too, if, in the
anticipated exchange of shots, having wounded me, they would kill me
outright in reprisal for my killing their two comrades.
Oh, it was a cheerful line of speculation! I was deep in it when,
above the regular shots of the fellow in the funk hole nearest me, came
a rattle of pistol explosions some distance away. One of the
runners, I thought. Hope he was as lucky as I. Munson told me
later that he had run into a boche near a railway track and had dropped
The chap in the near-by funk hole began to amuse me now. He kept up
his shots at fifteen-second intervals for half an hour. I'm inclined
to believe those Jerries were more frightened than we. May have
thought it was a surprise attack in force. This fellow, for instance,
was firing, I knew, at nothing in the world but atmosphere. And in his
own mind he may have been bumping off a lot of Yanks lying in wait for
the word to charge at his front--wherever in blazes his front was!
I got to feeling rather snug about the nervousness of this outfit. And
pride cometh also before a cough. After three days of intermittent
rain, without overcoat, I had acquired a cold. And now my throat
tickled and my nose itched, and I was headed straight for a healthy
bark. I sunk my teeth around my forearm--the good one--and let go. It
was pretty well smothered and attracted no attention, for the fellow
with all the superfluous ammunition remained quiet.
Seemingly secure from discovery, I was in no great rush to decide on
future plans. But some sort of campaign had to be laid out, for dawn
was not many hours away. I think it was about two-thirty, and before
light I had to be out of those environs, if ever I was to get out. But
at the moment it would have been suicidal to move. The night had
become so quiet that I hardly dared raise my head for fear the edge of
the helmet would scrape against something. Once, when my head dropped
from sleepiness, the helmet brought up against the muzzle of my gun.
It sounded like the crack of Doomsday to me.
I studied my compass to prevent drowsing. I was satisfied that
whatever way I crawled--farther away from or closer to more funk
holes--it would be a matter of pure guesswork, so I determined to hit
out south when move I did. The sky was sown with stars. As I looked
at them I thought of all the untroubled people they were shining upon;
saw the theatre crowds on Broadway. Old stars, I thought, I wonder
if ever I'll see you again. And then smiled at myself for finding
time to wax sentimental when practical matters should be engaging me!
Next I deplored my luck that there should be stars at all on this
night. Wind and rain were what I wanted. Under their cover I stood a
fair chance at weaseling off.
A visual reconnoissance of the ground immediately in front of me to the
south showed, within reach, the stump of a sapling. I couldn't see
whether it had been cut by shell fire or for camouflage. Wriggling
forward a few feet, I extended my arm outside the bush. It was too
clean a cut for shell fire, my fingers told me. Nothing but a sharp ax
had severed it so smoothly. Here was one spot I'd circuit before going
south--if I would avoid going west.
The night was wearing on, and I caught myself half dozing several
times. I kept looking at my watch and telling myself that I
mustn't--mustn't sleep. The rawness of early morning did much to keep
me awake in my muddy, soggy clothes.
At about four o'clock I noticed that the stars were thinning out. If
only it would rain! I will always believe that there was something
miraculous about the way the heavens were swept clear of those stars,
as if a great hand had gathered them in. For soon a wind came up that
tossed the tree tops and bent even the bushes. And with it, within a
few minutes, a heavy, lashing rain. Nothing could have better suited
I reached up and snapped off a few branches. No danger now of being
heard. The wind was kicking up a delightful rustling. The twigs I
inserted under my collar, their leaves thus giving some covering to my
face and breaking the line of my helmet.
Without loss of time I began crawling, taking care merely to keep low.
As I left, a German voice was traveling along what I assumed to be the
line of funk holes, yelling Posten! every few seconds. I figured
that it was their Stand to, or the relieving of a guard, for a little
earlier there had been the regular tramp of feet--maybe two squads,
from the sound--along a plank walk to my rear.
Machine guns were clattering away at their matins in several places in
the woods, but I was leaving them farther and farther in my wake--the
only wake of mine that I wanted them to attend. Once more it was the
struggle with the forest; once more the difficulty of keeping my
bearings, constantly watching the delicate compass. But breasting the
wilderness didn't matter now. I was hungry and thirsty and so tired
that it was a real effort to plow my feet through the undergrowth. But
at least, I was done with boche voices.
Then I came to a path in the exact center of which was a shell crater
nearly full of clay-colored water. I almost fell upon the hole
reaching back for my canteen. But as I leaned toward it, a strong
smell of mustard gas rose. And I went on!
I hadn't gone far along the path when somewhere a boche shouted
something, but he was not very near and must have been calling to a
comrade. I darted into the woods again, resolved to stay in them if I
dropped some place for good. I was awfully tired, and to my surprise
found myself staggering.
Over fallen trees I climbed, so high that at times I was well above the
young saplings. Dawn was breaking now, and it was easier to preserve a
sense of direction. I came to another crater. While I took the
precaution to smell, I would have drunk, I believe, even had the water
been gassed. My mouth was terribly parched. Already I had resorted to
shaking the rain-wet young trees over my upturned face; I had even
pressed their wet leaves against my tongue. Now I drank--drank till I
could hold no more. The water was almost as filthy as Gunga Din's--but
it was wonderful!
Broad day had come when I reached another such wide clearing as that of
our dueling exploit. I was timid of taking it, but it ran south;
indeed, it may have been the same. The firing was faint behind me, and
I decided to follow it. I was vexed because I could not quite control
my steps. My gun was swinging listlessly in my hand, and for the first
time in twenty-four hours I pushed it back into its holster.
Half an hour's going disclosed a broad road ahead. I was passing
untenanted trenches. I heard voices ahead presently and sprang into
the bushes at the side. Then I went ahead slowly, with ears keen. The
voices grew more distinct; I caught syllables and--it was English, good
I tumbled out and approached several Americans standing near a funk
hole. I went up to one of them. He looked at me with some concern in
My God, but I'm glad to see you! I said. They were of the Third
Battalion, and my exclamation must have startled them, for, of course,
I did not know them. Tell me something in American, I added. My
nerves were frayed, I guess, and my voice sounded curiously far-off.
Is anything the matter, sir? one of them asked.
Nothing at all. I'm on my way back to regiment at Karlsruhe. Will
this path take me?
Then I learned that I had reached the Tirpitz trench, the reserve
battalion's new position.
Let me go back to the next runner post with you, said one, and made
to take my arm. Which annoyed me, naturally.
The colonel was about to eat breakfast when I arrived at the fancy
dugouts we had taken so many eons ago. I indicated my battalion's
position on his map and told him the situation briefly.
Lieutenant McKeogh adds, Relief was sent with ammunition and food on
September 30, and on the following day the refreshed command started
forward again--again to be cut off, this time for five days. The men
in the battalion crouched in the rain and the cold in their shallow and
hastily constructed trenches. The Germans kept a constant fire upon
them from machine guns and attempted to reach them with their
artillery, but fortunately they did not get the exact range.
There were machine-gun nests all about them and if a man showed himself
ever so little or made any loud noise, he brought upon all of them
volleys from the guns and from the trench mortars. At regular
intervals all the machine guns would sweep the place with a rain of
bullets. Snipers were also constantly on the watch for the exposure of
the smallest part of a man's body.
They had carried little food with them, for they expected it to follow
them along their line of communication. There was water in the swampy
little creek in the ravine, but to attempt to reach it by day meant
certain death. At night the enemy covered it with machine gun fire,
making it almost impossible for the Americans to crawl down and back
again. Many did make the venture, and some returned with their
canteens full, which they shared with their comrades. Others were
found afterward by the stream where they had fallen under the enemy's
At regimental headquarters it was known, even before Lieutenant McKeogh
got through, that the battalion was surrounded in the forest, unless it
had been exterminated or had surrendered. So daily, American aviators
flew over the forest attempting to locate the men. They dropped
carrier pigeons in boxes hoping some of them might fall into Major
Whittlesey's hands and that by them he might send his location to the
colonel. They also dropped boxes of food, but neither the pigeons nor
the food reached the lost battalion.
Major Whittlesey had no rockets to send up to give his location, and
his men could not yell loud enough to make the aviators hear them and
locate them, but their yells did help the Germans to get better range
for their trench mortars and machine guns.
As the days passed the Americans grew more and more exhausted, but
their courage and hope continued strong. All would rather die than
surrender. Their ammunition was getting so low that the Germans were
able to come closer to them, for Major Whittlesey ordered his men only
to fire when the Hun was near enough so that they were sure not to miss
After five days of this terrible exposure and strain, the battalion was
rescued by a relief party. Of more than six hundred men at the
beginning, three hundred and ninety-four survived at the end of the
five days' fighting and suffering. All were completely exhausted, and
many wounded. Many were so weak they had to be carried to the rear
where warm blankets, warm food, and drink awaited them.
But more than this awaited them. Their comrades were waiting for them
with happy smiles and proud cheers. A place in history among the
valiant deeds of brave and daring men also awaited them. They taught a
lesson in pluck and endurance that the world will not allow to be
To those who read this story of The Lost Battalion, Colonel
Whittlesey and Lieutenant McKeogh send the following messages:--
The most striking memory of one who returns from abroad is the memory
of the enlisted men, who bore the real hardship of the war and did
their work in a simple, cheerful way.
Charles W. Whittlesey.
America's greatest contribution to the World War was--the enlisted man.
His calm valor, his smiling self-sacrifice can never be told.
1st Lieut., Inf., U.S.A.